Ever since I came back from vacation in mid-June, I’ve been busily at work finishing a big judging job that was due on July 8. As usual, I was infuriated by the lack of quality in the entries, except for the top 30 or so; and the top 10 were hard to rank into first, second, third, and so on. Each reader would probably rank them differently.
Last spring I decided I should remind myself what it’s like to be on the other side of the fence in poetry contests, so I scratched together some entries for the National Federation of State Poetry Society (NFSPS) and Ohio Poetry Day competitions. For NFSPS, I only rewrote some old poems. I figured that was better than nothing, and simply entering was a step forward since I haven’t been writing much and not entering at all since I was let go from editing Poet’s Market almost five years ago.
I was quite pleased when a big brown envelop with an NFSPS return address arrived in late June. One of my poems had won second honorable mention in the Almeda Boulton Memorial Award category, which had 299 entries.
I haven’t finished in the money in an NFSPS category very often, although this one would have been nice: third place was $200 and just missing was one of those “Rats!” moments. However, it was literally over a decade before I even got my first honorable mention of any rank in the NFSPS contests, so those honorable mention certificates are still prized. (You can see the entire 2012 NFSPS winners list here; check back at the NFSPS website for other news, including 2013 competition rules, which are already posted.)
I was surprised to find that the judge, Eleanor Berry, had written a comment on the back of the entry, which was returned to me with the certificate. (In fact, I didn’t even realize it was there until Mom pointed it out to me when I gave her the poem to read.) It said, “Nonce form that serves well to support meaning conveyed through juxtaposition of telling details—quietly poignant.”
Comments are as highly prized as certificates, especially when they’re as insightful as Ms. Berry’s. It reminded me how much I wish I could comment directly to poets more often when judging contests. My largest judging jobs use an online system that does allow comments, but I don’t think entrants have access to those comments. So often I’d like to tell a poet, “Okay, you came in fifteenth instead of first. It doesn’t matter where the quality of the work is concerned. I loved your poem. Another judge might have ranked it higher.”
I admit I’d love to tell off the bad poets with “insightful” comments as well. My most common comment would be, “Stop entering poetry contests until you actually start reading some poetry.”
Further elaboration is for another time. In fact, I’m going to start a weekly Monday feature, “Poetry Contest Tips,” in which I share an observation or piece of advice regarding why and how poets go wrong in contests. Stop back if you want to know more.
For now, I’m going to share my NFSPS 2012 poem here. I debated whether to keep it back to submit for publication—and, yes, printing it here does constitute publication for me as well as for many contests and editors—but since it’s a personal poem about my late stepfather, who died of Alzheimer’s, I decided to present it here.
DAVID, AFTER AND BEFOREHe stumbles over dandelions, tosses handfuls of lettuce seed onto the hard soil beneath the kitchen window as if feeding chickens with barrages of corn. This is the man who tilled the garden every spring, started tomato plants in the laundry room in winter, and established an asparagus bed behind the garage. He fumbles with the ignition switch on the new push mower, meanders all over his patch of suburban lawn, endangering the phlox, the mailbox, the neighbors’ yards. This is the man who mowed his country acreage, maneuvered his riding Deere through an orchard maze, rolled up and down the lumpy terrain without tipping. He stands in the doorway, staring. His sweat pants droop. He scratches his head. Where is he going? Where was he a second ago? This is the man who lived to square dance, picked up his feet and put them down in sync with the caller’s rapid patter, natty in his colored shirt and string tie. He cruises the hallway, shuffling behind the rolling walker he got for his birthday. He grins. “Look, I’ve got ‘wheels’ again!” This is the man who loved cars, tinkered under the hood with good results, drove slowly but drove far, and always found his way home.
(You can read more about David and his garden on my mother’s blog here.)